Sue Jagt is a true pioneer. When they were young, two of her three sons had minor skin conditions, so she took a course on how to make her own soap. By her own admission, the first few batches were terrible. But the Meaford, Ont., mom persevered and kept experimenting. When her youngest son was just a year old, she perfected her methods and began Georgian Bay Soapworks. She sold her natural deodorants, lip balms, lotions, and shampoo bars wholesale and at farmers markets. Now her products are available in-store and online.
Seven years ago, with her kids grown, Sue and her business left Meaford and went “off grid”. Her carpenter husband built a house and a little store on a dirt road on the Bruce Peninsula. We spoke to Sue about how she manages to stay sane living in the middle of nowhere without hydro.
For the past several years you have lived and worked entirely off grid. Can you tell us what that entails?
“[Our house] only uses solar energy. We have eight panels on the roof and eight batteries.
It’s funny, people come over and expect us to have a dirt floor. But we have everything everybody else has: a TV, plugs, switches… We do watch our power, though, and check before having a shower, let’s say. In the summer, it’s totally fine. In the winter — particularly December and January — we run a generator for an hour a day to top up the batteries when it’s not sunny.
How does it work for running a business?
It’s just a matter of planning when you do things during the day. When the sun comes out, I will kick on Wifi to check orders or start making a batch of soap. Meantime, I can do other things. Anyway, who can argue with not having a hydro bill every month? When there’s a severe storm, and everyone’s without power, my husband and I will be watching the hockey! It was stressful for a few years because there was no one we could ask about maintaining the batteries, etc. But we knew it was something we always wanted to do once the kids left home.
You were selling eco-friendly and natural before it became a thing.
I print my own recyclable labels and wrap my soaps in a compostable polypropylene bag. I even hand-stitch rather than use staples. The peninsula is great because people here are committed to nature. I remember the first potluck dinner I went to… Everybody showed up with their own plates and cutlery. Everybody wants to keep the bush the way it is. So what I do works well here.
What has been the most challenging aspect of running GB Soapworks?
Business was slow to start, but as the kids got older, it became easier. Years ago, I had doubts, and I’d ask myself, “Am I doing the right thing?” If I didn’t have orders, I worried that maybe I should just get a job like everybody else. My husband has always been very supportive and encouraging, financially and otherwise. And I love the fact that my boys still ask me for soap, for them and their girlfriends; they won’t use anything else.
I do it all myself, even the labelling. I’m determined to keep my business small batch. My husband helps slug by lifting and moving the market boxes. But everything else I do myself because I want it done right. I couldn’t stand it if a label was crooked on something in the shop.
It must get stir crazy living and working in the bush. How do you cope with the isolation?
When I was a stay-at-home mom, I was always trying to find something I could do with my kids. We went to the beach every single day in the summer, tobogganed in winter. We got out and did stuff. My priority was time with them. These days, I’m either in the store or at home making a batch. Going to the markets gets me out talking to people. I had a man I didn’t know who came to the store the other day and said, “I need my bee butter.” People find something that works for them, and they seek me out. That’s what keeps me going.
Julie Green is a freelance writer, artist, and autism advocate. She lives in Toronto with her husband, son, and bulldog. Learn more at http://www.juliemgreen.ca.
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